Joan Roca, executive chef at El Celler de Can Roca, belongs to the generation of entrepreneurial and visionary high-end chefs that have gradually been turning Girona into a global Epicurean shrine.
Roca runs the restaurant, which has two Michelin stars, with his younger brothers Josep and Jordi, and together they aim to create a unique gastronomic experience. The chef has long sought out extraordinary cooking techniques and a particular passion of his has been to explore the links between aromas, flavours and perfume, almost as if he was a sorcerer brewing ingredients for a spell.
One extreme example of this is how Roca has revitalised ancient ingredients such as edible foil papers of gold, silver and copper (said to lower cholesterol), which were commonly used in the sixth-century Persian Empire, and today fill and decorate some of his specialities. Along with the wine chosen by Josep and the sweet creations of Jordi, Joan Roca’s dishes enable diners to appreciate the sensory quality of food.
A visit to Restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, which opened last year and is set in a beautiful stone townhouse nestled amongst lush herbal and botanical gardens, requires a willingness to suspend the antiquated notion that eating is a basic fundamental of life, something we do in order to survive. There is little about a lunch or dinner here that can be compared to any relationship or notion that eating is for living.
What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Firstly, genealogical heritage has bestowed my brothers, sommelier Josep and pastry whiz Jordi, and I with Epicurean parental bloodlines. My earliest memories are of my mother Montserrat in the family kitchen. However, my mother and father didn’t just cook for the family; they prepared dishes for customers at their traditional Catalan restaurant. It is of no surprise that all three of us have ended up in the restaurant business. After attending cooking school in Girona and France, my two brothers and I opened El Celler de Can Roca, right next door to the family restaurant, El Restaurante de Can Roca. At the very beginning, in 1986, my restaurant was cradled into a very constricted space and I could barely turn around in the kitchen. The decor was modest with no frills.
While lots of restaurants can turn out a good meal or two, few can match the Rocas’ colossal portfolio of fine food and wines. What has led you to your success today?
Our move, 11 months ago, has marked a turning point for us, in the way we have merged the gastronomic traditions of Catalan Mediterranean cuisine with advanced culinary technology.
How would you describe your culinary philosophy?
I respect high-standing Catalan traditions. However, I do not stand still in my culinary style. My successful dishes are due to my cautious attention, forming architectural structures, which provide the ingredients with visual and physical balance like a well constructed building. Then they are measured so that they do not tumble over when set up on plates, combining the colours and liaising the textures. Furthermore, my dishes contain savoury, sweet, salty and sour notes, all in total harmony. Additionally, I embrace state-of-the-art culinary technology, employing sous vide to create my signature dishes.
What exactly is sous vide?
The sous vide culinary process is a French term meaning ‘under vacuum’ and involves vacuum packing food in a plastic type vacuum baggie and cooking food at a lower temperature than normal for an extended period of time and then quickly cooling it. The advantages of sous vide are that the chef receives less shrinkage of the raw materials, they are more moist, full of flavour and, in the restaurant business, higher volumes of food can be prepared much faster. This method was originally used during the Persian Empire in the sixth century.
How long have you been utilising these techniques?
Since our first kitchen renovation in 1996.
What motivated your study of duplicating perfume aromas and creating designer scented desserts?
Jordi, my youngest brother and pastry chef, is the expert on this subject. He did several pastry-making courses in northern Italy and had begun experimenting with citrus fruits, bergamot, spices, condiments and basil, to name a few.
Which dish do you consider your speciality?
Meats and especially milk-fed kid.
What are your favourite fast foods or tapas?
Acorn-fed Iberian ham from Jabugo and fresh fruit.
Tell us about your most extraordinary gastronomic holiday destination.
The Kai Seiki gastronomic route in Kyoto, Japan. ‘Kai’ means breast and ‘seiki’ are stones. Historical Kyoto has maintained its ancient gastronomic traditions, which were started by medieval Buddhist monks who would either carry servings of food in their pockets for long journeys or be served platters of assorted types of sushi, marine pickles and cucumbers, sashimi, rice, marine algae lettuces and various types of udon noodles. This has become Japan’s renovated tapas movement in the 21st century.
What are some of your favourite foreign restaurants?
I have enjoyed numerous dinners abroad, however, here are a couple off the top of my head: Michel Bras in France; Wylie D. in Manhattan; and, for diversity, Morimoto for Japanese.
What are some of your future professional plans?
To reap our botanical gardens’ herbal and fruit harvests, which include bergamot, basil and cherries. We are planning to continue with our experimenting and investigating of the world’s herbs, truffles and aromas. We are also widening our essential herbal oil line, creating new recipes and wine pairing, tending fruit and vegetables. Also, to enjoy our expansion.
Restaurant El Celler de Can Roca:Can Sunyer 46, Girona, Tel. 972 22 21 57. Reservations recommended. www.cellercanroca.com